A Merry Christmas in the Laos Panhandle
In late 1967, having separated myself from just about three years of employment with Air America as “Co-Chief of Aerial Delivery/Search & Rescue, Southeast Asia” to going to work for the U.S. Government in the Khammouane Province capital of Thakhek, I decided to spend Christmas-time in the more-southern & larger Mekong River town of Savannakhet, where my boss had located his own operation. The 24 December flight down the river in a Pilatus Porter aircraft was smooth and uneventful, and I was soon driven to the dusty camp which was used by “our sort,” located just outside of town and about four minutes from the Savannakhet Airport. The only news of interest in the camp was that there was said to have been some sort of disturbance to the east of us, at the town of Muong Phalane; a worrisome event if it were true (which one of my fellow officers had gone by Air America H-34 helicopter to investigate), given that there was a clandestine U.S. Military “TACAN” air navigation station located nearby.
It was later in the afternoon, after I had completed a few reports, that news reached us of the small-arms-weapons downing of that H-34 helicopter, not far from the TACAN site, without including the exact location of the mentioned shoot-down. Things became quite a bit less “holiday-like” then, as we scrambled for clearer information about the particulars of the incident and what we would be allowed by the American Embassy, to do about it. On towards evening, the word was passed from the embassy, that the chopper was in fact, down, and only a quick “snatch-like” rescue attempt would be allowed, at first light the next day. Further, two Air America 204B jet helicopters would arrive at the Savannakhet Airport, one hour before sun-up on Christmas morning to make this attempt. I guess because I had a long history of search & rescue operations with Air America and also probably, because the other Savannakhet officers had their own responsibilities to see to (given that the Pathet Lao/North Vietnamese Army folks had a history of trying to cause mischief on American holidays, since they felt we might be a bit lax at such times), my name was suggested to Vientiane, and the job of leading the hoped-for rescue fell to me.
Armed to the teeth, I found myself on Christmas morning, standing on the dark Savannakhet Airport runway, waiting – along with my boss – for the incoming 204B’s. They arrived on time – Air America always edging out the USAF (when we used their helicopters) as regards being on schedule. Soon, we were off and away, and in time passing just to the south of the dark old, formerly massive SENO French airbase, much reduced in activity from "French Indo China" days.
In time, and with the very first signs in the sky of an approaching dawn, my pilot, Ed Reid (seated in the right seat of his 204B as is the custom for helicopters, with me in the left seat) notified me on the intercom that we were near the “best guess” area in which the unfortunate H-34 might have crash-landed. Having been ordered not to spend too much time in the area lest we too, would fall victim to enemy fire, we opted to make only about three relatively low passes over the area beneath us, and proceeded to set-about doing just that.
On our second pass (if I recall correctly) we both saw what looked like a bright flash on the still-dark ground, followed by a rising ball of fire, which gave every evidence of being the start of a cannon-sized tracer round barrage. It struck us as strange though, that the fireball – and the one which followed it in about fifteen seconds, burned-out about three hundred feet beneath us. . , “strange,” until I recalled that my downed associate was never to be caught without his pocket-full of what were called, “Pencil Flares,” meant to call attention in the event of a crash. I mentioned this to Ed, and we elected make one even lower pass, with the other Air America 204B above and to the side of us, as a “rescuer of the rescuers,” should something go amiss.
During that low pass in the quarter-light of morning, I felt that I could identify at least one silhouette as being that of my associate, standing in a small clearing with two or three others, so I gave the tentative OK to make a quick landing, while at the same time, charging the chamber of the AK-47 I had brought with me. As soon as we touched-down, my associate and the others who had been on board the H-34 piled in the back of our 204B and we were off once again, after no more than 30 seconds on the enemy-held ground.
I recall the flight back to Savannakhet as being one of far more exhaustion than relief, although there was surely some of that. I (and my boss) had spent the previous Christmas Eve night trying to get some sleep on two very hard map tables at the camp, while the H-34 survivors had spent it evading the enemy soldiers who had been sent-out to capture them. I just hoped that Ed Reid has gotten some sleep, because our futures now depended on him and on Bell Aviation, the maker of the 204B we were flying in.
Once back on the ramp at Savannakhet, the H-34 passengers and Thai Air America pilot, were driven away for a debriefing, while I, after telling my boss how things had gone, just slid down against the outside of an old hanger wall and accepted a warm Singapore Tiger Beer from one of the Thai airport riggers who was working that day. I recall, it tasted pretty good, but then, most anything would have at a time like that.
Later in the morning, my boss and I took my recently-crashed & retrieved associate back into Savannakhet and back into the arms of his wife and two daughters, who, themselves, had spent a rocky night at their home, waiting for word. After that, there was a gathering of all the single officers at our bosses’ home, where we celebrated too much and stole a Christmas present game called "Klunk-a-Glunk" from his young sons and risked breaking each others fingers, with the small wooden hammers, which were a part of the game. I do recall thinking, though, that I was really happy because I had just had the good fortune of giving some nice people, the best Christmas present I could ever imagine.
This is the sort of thing which the Air America fixed-wing & helicopter pilots/crews did on a regular basis, without fanfare, newsreel coverage, medals or public accolades from the people of the country whose name was an important part of their outfit’s title. “All in a day’s work,” is just how the flight crews thought about such things. No wonder their motto was, "Anything, Anywhere, Anytime, Professionally."
(In Kenneth Conboy’s excellent book on the war in Laos (“Shadow War," with James Morrison), he seems to have placed the time of this event one day later than I do – the shoot-down on Christmas Day and the pick-up on the 26th of December. While memory sometimes fails over time and tales sometimes blend together so I could be wrong, I am sticking to the dates I have written about. I was there, and such events are not that easily forgotten.)